Two years ago I assembled a crappy little birthday video montage for my friend, using a combination of Flip clips and ultra-lo-res digi-pics. My masterpiece was set to the tune of the Flight of the Conchords' “Foux Du Fafa” — with iMovie's Ken Burns effect applied, of course. “This is genius,” I thought to myself.
Looking at it now, I would advise no one to ever watch the video. (Although, if you must, it's here.) But despite its shortcomings, it has not become an entirely-forgotten digital corner of the internet. That's because YouTube's digital fingerprinting program, Content ID, got involved. Now — as I recently noticed while combing through my old YouTube channel — it doubles as an ad to purchase “Foux Du Fafa” on iTunes or AmazonMP3. (If you squint you can see so yourself in the right bottom corner of the screen grab above.)
There was also a banner ad for Battlestar Galactica that rolled momentarily along the bottom of the vid as it played — which, creepily, is also one of my favorite shows. But what really blew my mind was that YouTube had somehow picked up on the Conchords' song and created an advertisement for my favorite ridiculous fictional characters, Bret and Jemaine.
How the F did YouTube do that?
Well, I did a little digging, and it turns out that a few years back the 'Tube developed this scanning software for major network broadcasters, movie studios and record labels; any company that owns tons of copyrighted media and has been hemorrhaging money trying to e-protect it.
This happened back in 2007, and big companies that qualified for the program started sending their stuff to YouTube. The Content ID system would scan it and create a “footprint,” and then those studios would get a notification whenever a new upload looked like a match. I called a nice lady up at YouTube's HQ in Silicon Valley who told me all this.
When the label gets one of those notifications — like for my dumb little montage — they have the choice of either telling me to remove it, leaving it alone but getting demographic stats on who's watching it, or putting up ads with it and sharing the revenue with YouTube.
Naturally, some 'Tubers oppose outside ads on their content, and there are all kinds of Google message boards that address what makes something “fair use” — for example a parody or a super-short clip. In that case, the ad money shouldn't go to studios and labels just because a computer thought there was a match.
As for me, well, I'm actually kind of flattered to be advertising for two of my favorite shows. And if I had known at the time that my brilliant editing would be used to sell other nerds on Conchords and Battlestar, well, I can't say I would have done anything differently.